You Say Marriage, I Say Civil Union


Although he supports a constitutional amendment to stop gay marriage, President Bush says he disagrees with his party's opposition to gay civil unions. "I don't think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that's what a state chooses to do so," he recently told Charles Gibson on Good Morning America. "I view the definition of marriage different from legal arrangements that enable people to have rights. And I strongly believe that marriage ought to be defined as…a union between a man and a woman. Now, having said that, states ought to be able to have the right to pass laws that enable people to be able to have rights like others."

This sounds a lot like the "marriage in all but name" that worries social conservatives. It's a mistake to conflate the institution of marriage with the relatively recent legal arrangements that put the government's stamp of approval on certain unions. But if you assume that marriage is a creation of the state, as proponents of the Federal Marriage Amendment apparently do, it's hard to see much of a difference between permitting same-sex marriage and giving gay couples "rights like others." What is civil marriage, after all, except a bundle of rights and privileges?

It's possible that Bush is being deliberately ambiguous. Perhaps the "rights like others" he has in mind do not include, say, the right to adopt children. But he seems to be saying he would let the states make such determinations, provided they do not use the m-word. Maybe the government simply should avoid the term altogether.